O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and have prevailed: I am in derision daily…
A religious man in the nineteenth century is not accustomed to speak of God as a deceiver. And yet, once we allow for the difference of phraseology and get behind the words, we find that the experience which Jeremiah expressed here is one through which we ourselves have passed, and the problem which he tries to solve is still on our hands. He had now been preaching for several years. He had set out with all the ardour of young enthusiasm. His was no reckless rush into the ministry. Objections and difficulties there were, and he took account of them. But the impulse to preach was too strong to be resisted, and the young prophet had no doubt that that impulse was the voice of God. His obedience involved an expectation. He expected, of course, that his work would tell; the God who called him would be with him, and the "work of the Lord" would "prosper in his hands." After several years' hard, faithful work, what does he find? A people not only obdurate and disobedient, but revengeful and cruel. He had seen the reformation under King Josiah, and he had seen also the terrible relapse. It grieved his heart to see the fearful idolatrous practices restored in the Valley of Hinnom. He went down there one day to protest against it in the name of God. While he delivered his message he held in his hand a potter's earthen bottle, which, at one point in his discourse, he dashed to pieces on the ground, and assured his hearers that so the Lord would break them and their city in pieces. The result of this was not, as he might have hoped, the turning away of the people from sin. On the contrary, Pashur, the chief officer in the house of the Lord, struck Jeremiah and put him in stocks to be jeered at. Though liberated the next day, this treatment caused the prophet seriously to reflect upon the whole question of his mission. He looked upon that mission in the light of results, and he confessed to a great disappointment. That is what he expresses in the words, "Lord, Thou hast deceived me." Results seemed to tell him to give up, and he tried to give up. He said: "I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His name." But what did he find? A burning fire in his heart, and he could not forbear. Here, then, was the prophet's dilemma. The language of actualities to him was "stop," but there was an imperative in his soul, and he could not stop. Now the practical question to him was — Which of these two conflicting voices was the voice of God? Was it the voice of history, or was it the prophetic impulse of his heart? If the latter, then there was the hard fact for him to face, that "the word of the Lord" made him a laughing stock, a derision, and a reproach. Jeremiah decided for the latter, spite of the tremendous odds against him, and preached on in the faith that God would some day vindicate his cause. The problem which Jeremiah had to solve for himself is still with us. There does appear to be a contradiction between the world as it is and the world as we feel it ought to be, which is very puzzling. To many minds that contradiction is altogether inexplicable. The so-called moral ideal is an illusion of the mind, and if we call it the voice of God, then God deceives men. There always have been ideals of justice and goodwill, but the real world is all the time in dead opposition to them. Now, which of these expresses the will of God? Is it the world of fact, or the world of aspiration? Is it in our sight of what is, or in our hope of what may be? Shall we learn His character from what He has actually done, or from an ideal which He has always promised but never realised? Does God deceive men? Reformers die with their holms unfulfilled; lives have been given to the cause of righteousness, and yet might remains right, and the tyrant prevails. Do our ideals simply mock us? If these are the voice of God, why do they not prevail? Is God defeated? What shall we say? Let us not try to escape the difficulty by denying it. We may purchase a cheap optimism by blinking the ugly facts of the world. Let us admit to the full that the history of moral reform has its sore disappointments. The world has not only opposed the reformer, but it has always put him in stocks. It changes the kind of stocks as time goes on, but they are stocks all the same. Official religion and real religion are often engaged in deadly conflict, a conflict which frequently results to the reformer, as to Jeremiah, in a sore sense of disappointment. And every man who seeks to do good soon comes upon many discouraging facts. There are times when he says: "I have laboured in vain, and spent my strength for nought." Nor is it by ignoring such and similar facts, and dwelling only on the bright side, that we have to support faith. On the other hand, we must beware of the temperament which ever occupies itself with life's disappointments, and fails to see its progress and success. Now, I admit that if there were that complete breach between the real and ideal which appears to be, the problem would be utterly insoluble. But it is not so. In the first place, it is not correct to speak of the world of fact and the world of aspiration as separate and distinct, for the aspiration is one of the facts. It is a part of that unto which it aspires. The aspiration after goodness is itself good, and all prayer for spiritual excellence is part of its own answer. There is no clear line between the ideal and the real, for the ideal is a part of man as he is, and he is a part of the world as it is. When we ask whether we shall learn God's character from that which He has accomplished in the world, or from the ideal which stirs the soul, we forget that that soul with its ideal is a part of what He has done. Man, with his sense of duty, with all his yearnings for purer and diviner being, is a part of the world as it is; the ideal is partly actual; prophecy is history at its highest range. If only one man desired that society should be righteous and pure, society could not be judged without that man. The power of an ideal may culminate in a great person, find in him an exceptionally brilliant expression, and reach the point at which it commands the world; but he is always a sharer in the conditions he condemns, and the men he condemns have helped to make him what he is. He may be as different from the average society as the blossom is from the stem on which it grows, but that society conditions him as the stem conditions the blossom. This is the fact which the prophet is liable to forget. It was as true of Jeremiah as of Thomas Carlyle, that he made the blackness blacker than it was. Jeremiah was not as lonely as he himself thought he was. If that nation had been utterly faithless, such faith as his could not have been born in it. So, though the prophet must condemn the actual, because he is swayed by the ideal, and is a divinely discontented man, working for progress, yet his very existence proves that that progress has already been the order of God, and has produced him. That there is a contradiction between what is and what ought to be is true, but it is not the whole truth. Strictly speaking, nothing is, but everything is becoming. We are in the process of a Divine evolution in which the ideal is forever actualising itself. The contradiction is not ultimate, nor the breach complete. What cannot we hope, for instance, of a race that counts one Jesus among its members? He is, then, an example of what we may become, and our representative before God. In like manner, surely, when God judges the human race, He does not judge it with its best specimens left out; He takes its highest points into consideration. He does with the race what you and I do with the individual — takes its best as its real self, as that to which it shall one day fully attain. And when we think that Jesus, and all that He was, is a part of the actual history of the world, then we say that the richest ideals that ever sway our souls are justified by the history of our race — God is not deceiving us. Let us try to remember this when we come to bitter disappointments in life's work. When the prophet finds, as find he will, that multitudes do not listen, but mock and deride, let him nevertheless be sure that the good and the true must prevail. Some disappointments are inevitable. It is of the very nature of an ideal to make life unsatisfactory; a spirit so possessed can never rest in what is, but will forever press forward to that which is before. To be content with all things as they are is to obliterate the distinction between good and bad, between right and wrong. No high-souled man will settle matters so. But some of our bitterest disappointments come from the fact that the form in which the ideal shapes itself in our mind is necessarily defective, and that our scheme of work is consequently partial and one-sided. This was a constant source of trouble to the prophets of Israel. We get many of our disappointments in a similar way. Here are two men, for instance, whose souls are stirred by the ideal of a renovated world in which righteousness and love shall reign. Each think of bringing it about chiefly in one particular way, the former, perhaps by some scheme of social reform, the latter by a certain type of gospel preaching. Both will be very disappointed; the world will not come round to them as they wish. And yet while these two men are groaning under their disappointments, the fact is that the world is all the time advancing, though not in their way. The man who thinks that his particular gospel is the only thing that can possibly save the world finds the world very indifferent to that gospel, and thinks that it is going to perdition, while all the time it is going onward and upward to higher and better things. But the truth is, that the world's progress is far too great to be squeezed into any one creed, or scheme, or ordinance, and you cannot measure it by any of these. Attempt that, and while you bemoan your discouragements and think ill of the world, humanity will sweep onward, receiving its marching orders from the throne of the universe. For practical purposes we must confine our energies chiefly to one or two ways of doing good, but if we only remember that when we have selected our way it is but a small fragment of what has to be done, that other ways and methods are quite as necessary, we shall save ourselves from much personal trouble, and from much ill-judgment of others. But even when we have done our best, there will still be some adverse results. These must not dishearten us. If there be in our heart "as it were a burning fire," and we become weary of silence and cannot contain, then let the fiery speech flow, however cold the world. We must obey the highest necessities of our nature. Our best impulses and purest desires are the word of God to us, which we have to preach. With this conviction we can go on with our work, disappointments notwithstanding. Nothing is more evident in reviewing history than the continuity of Divine purpose. It is the unfolding of a plan. It is full enough of evil and of sorrow, and yet "out of evil cometh good," and "joy is born of sorrow." It is full enough of error, and yet, somehow, even error has been used to preserve truth. Out of mistakes and superstitions have come some of the greatest truths. The greatest tragedy of history was the crucifixion of Jesus, yet Calvary has become the mount of our highest ascensions, and the altar of our best thanksgivings. So often, indeed, has the best come out of the worst, so often has the morning broken when the night was darkest, so often has peace come through war, that no discouragements of today shall weaken our faith, or bedim our hope, or mar the splendour of our expectation. We believe in God. There are dark places in history, tunnels through which we are not able to follow the train of the Divine purpose, but we saw it first on the one side, and then on the other, and conclude it must have gone through — the tunnel, too, was on the line of progress. The history of the world is an upward history. And those who know God are ever looking up; men with a Divine outlook are ever on the march. And, friends, whatever you do, cling to the ideal. Let no discouragement release your hold. Be active and practical; yes, but do not be bound within the limits of any one scheme. Climb the mount of vision, and have converse with God, and you will carry down with you a faith that can stand any disappointment, and hold itself erect amid the rush of the maddest torrent.
(T. R. Williams.)
Parallel VersesKJV: O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived: thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me.